What lies beneath

In matters of the heart, our boys are all boy. When it comes to demonstrating emotions toward each other, that demonstration usually takes the form of a punch or a blind-side tackle. Sure, they play and joke together, but when one inspires a deep feeling within another, that feeling is generally somewhere between annoyance and anger.

That’s what makes it so much extra soft and fuzzy when the moon turns blue and they show some genuine warmth for each other.

Last weekend was Big Brother’s league basketball tournament. This was the biggest tournament of the year, and he had been looking forward to it. The Thursday before the tournament, Big Brother got sick. We thought he’d be better in time, but when he woke Saturday morning it became clear he wouldn’t be able to play.

He and I were both disappointed. As he sat in his pajamas, coming to terms with disappointment and his physical discomforts, Buster took me by the arm and whispered into my ear. “Can you make him stay upstairs and you come downstairs with me?”

Big Brother didn’t look like he was going downstairs in the next few minutes, so I just went down with Buster. “Can you get me paper and a pencil?” Buster asked, leading me toward the drawing paper the boys use to make birthday cards for their friends’ parties.

I got him a piece of paper and a crayon, because crayons are better than pencils for Hallmark occasions. He sat at the dining room table and folded the paper into card form. Looking up at me, he said, “I need help with the words.”

I nodded. “What do you want to say?”

He told me his thoughts and I spelled the words for him. He wrote the letters as I dictated.


The best cards are made of crayon on paper.

All the words were his. Only the spelling was mine, except for the word “BAeTter” where he kind of got ahead of me. It didn’t matter. The meaning was clear.

A mouthful for a boy to say to his brother.

Big Brother came downstairs. Buster made me stand guard so Big Brother wouldn’t come into the dining room. When Buster was finally done with the illustrations, he handed the card to Big Brother with the understated, brotherly tenderness that comes with the single word: “Here.” “Here” is the most caring word in a boy’s lexicon when it accompanies a hand bearing a heartfelt gift.

Big Brother read the card. He didn’t know how to react. At last, the brotherly instinct took over. His face brightened just a bit. “That’s really nice,” he told Buster. He put the card down on the coffee table and life went back to normal.

Everything that needed to be done or said was done and said. The exchange lasted a brief instant, and that was exactly the right length for it. If it had gone longer, it would have turned fake.

This was real, and it had to be allowed to sink down underneath, where brothers keep it.



The hunter becomes the hunted

A couple years ago, I wrote about how Buster (then a baby) vexed Big Brother (then a four-year-old) by crawling among his play sets and tearing up all his railroad tracks.

And now you may be thinking: “Two years ago? This blog has been around that long? Wow, this guy doesn’t know when to give up!”

I don’t.

Anyway, Buster and Big Brother still fight over toys sometimes. But there are many other times when they play together, and (dare I say it?) co-operate to build things. There are even times when Buster accepts instruction from Big Brother in order to accomplish his playtime goals.

fine art

Working together to create a masterpiece of sibling co-operation.

Buster has no recollection of the havoc he caused to his brother’s play sets, nor of the gnashing of teeth resulting from his destructive ways. As far as he recollects, all of his frictions with his older brother have been honest disagreements between different engineering visions.

This lack of recall must make it especially hard on him that payback is a bitch.

There’s a New Baby in town, and his devotion to wanton destruction burns just as brightly as Buster’s ever did. The sock is on the other foot. Of course, the second sock has been pulled off and discarded, in the tradition of babies everywhere.

Now, Buster is the gnasher of teeth, shouting, “No, Baby, no!” using the same frantic urgency with which it was once directed at him. New Baby does him credit by living up to the very standard of disregard for admonition that he himself established all those forgotten times ago. Lack of recognition, coupled with an uncoupled train, makes it a hollow honor.

sacrifices had to be made

“I’m willing to let you chew on the plastic tunnel if it will save my train.”

I can’t explain to Buster that the unprovoked baby attacks he is enduring now are the same as he used to perpetrate. He can’t imagine that he could ever have been so annoying. Even if he could, it would only make him wonder why Daddy insists on bringing up random bits of ancient history that clearly have no relevance to his current suffering.

Daddy needs to be solving problems in the here and now, rather than telling his old-man stories of questionable accuracy.  New Baby needs to be taken away and possibly housed in a cage until Buster is good and done with his trains. Then, New Baby can be let out to tear them apart, so that when Buster is asked to pick them up, he can explain that New Baby was the last to use them. This is the kind of scenario that Daddy should be orchestrating, instead of fabricating some sketchy moral justification of New Baby’s outrages.

So much for compromise

Appeasement never works.

This house needs some law and order against the depredations of little brothers. At least until Big Brother gets home from school. Then we can renegotiate what little brothers are allowed to get away with.

Never let it be said that Buster doesn’t consider both sides of the issue.

Whine for two

After months of intensive practice, Buster has become an accomplished whiner. This means we now have two top-notch whiners in our house. Is there anything else in the world that could so completely double our pleasure?

There are two basic catalysts for little kids to cry. The first is that they have a reason to cry. This catalyst can be broken into two subgroups: a good reason to cry and a lame reason to cry. A good reason to cry is that your brother tackled you into the coffee table and the shiny new welt on your forehead hurts. A lame reason to cry is that your brother has the toy you’ve wanted ever since you saw him playing with it, and you failed in your attempt to snatch it out of his hands.

But there is hope for you yet. Keep trying to snatch it and he may tackle you into the coffee table, giving you a valid reason to cry.

toddler diplomacy

We’re trying to teach them to find a way to settle their differences between themselves, without whining to the parents. Buster’s way includes swordplay.

The second basic catalyst is the “give me a good reason not to cry” mindset. This is often the result of a lame reason to cry run amok. Lame reasons to cry are easy to forget, even to the person crying over them. Hence, you started crying over your brother’s toy five minutes ago; the toy was dropped behind the couch four minutes ago. You are still very sad, but you’re having a dickens of a time remembering why.

Now you need someone to give you a reason to stop crying, thanks to the laws of inertia, which you are obeying because you’re a good boy like that.

Meanwhile, you’re not really even crying anymore. Over the past five minutes, your sobs have mutated into an elongated, parent-piercing note from some magical spot at the back of your throat. Your sour grapes have fermented and mellowed into a fine whine.

Sometimes you just need a hug, but more often you need some ice cream or a new toy without the stench of your brother’s hands all over it. The good news is you can have the hug anytime you want it.

you need a hug

I hope this is enough for you because it’s the only thing you’re gonna get by whining.

Buster has made great strides as a whine producer, but Big Brother is still the undisputed master of whine at our house. Nothing  has yet come near his masterpiece anthem for wrongly accused children: “Noooo! I aaaam not whiiiiniiiiing!” [sniffle, sniffle, foot stomp].

And I don’t think they even covered irony in kindergarten.

It’s a special treat to witness two great artisans inspiring each other to new heights. The way Buster and Big Brother fight over toys, no outside influence is necessary to motivate either to hone his craft. The parents are only necessary as audience. Without parents, there is only fighting; the effort is worthless if there is no one at hand to sample the whine.

With this friendly competition only just beginning, it looks as though 2014, and the several years following, are sure to be superb vintages for the very best whines.

What’s another syndrome among family?

New Baby is settling in at home. We’ve begun calling him New Baby because after two years we still are in the habit of referring to Buster as the baby. Until we come to terms with Buster’s boyhood, he is Old Baby and his little brother is New Baby.

It still seems surreal that Buster could have a little brother.

My wife worries that Buster will develop Middle Child Syndrome. For that reason, she always wanted to have four children. Now that she has to deal with the reality of three boys, she has switched gears. She’s leaning less toward birthing another child and more toward viewing a little psychotherapy for her middle child as a solid investment.

I’m not worried about the man in the middle. Buster already has Buster Syndrome. Maybe that other syndrome is just the antidote he needs. He could use a little soul-searching to slow him down and temper some of those ragged edges.

Buster's glasses

The ravages of Buster Syndrome.

So far, Buster has adapted admirably to his new position. He shows only tenderness to New Baby, channeling all of his aggressive tendencies toward his big brother. Needless to say, his big brother is fine with this. It leads to no fighting, whining, or tattle telling at all.

Whether Buster’s treatment of New Baby stems from pure kindness or the fact that he sees the writing on the wall is uncertain. New Baby is a beefcake. Buster is a little squirt. Unless he conjures up a growth spurt, Buster will be a big brother in name only within a few years. He is wise to plan for that day.

Until then, New Baby has sharp claws for self-defense. I don’t know what part of evolution demands that babies be born with long fingernails. He can’t hold his head up or make his limbs bend to his will, yet New Baby has razor talons. This somehow makes sense to Nature. In theory, his claws could be used to protect himself, if a predator caught his spastic hand and scraped his fingernails against itself. Otherwise, they only protect him from having a smooth face. Nature likes self-inflicted scratches I guess.

Not a bumbo fan

“Feel the wrath of my pinky claw!”

New Baby doesn’t have to wield his bird of prey claws against Buster, even if he could control them. Buster is committed to being a good big brother. As to being the middle child, I think Buster will have no problem carving out a comfortable space for himself. He will defend his things from the grabby hands of his little brother with vigor equal to that he used snatching them from the hands of this big brother. His zeal will be an example to all.

I don’t worry about any of the boys adjusting to their new roles. The one I worry about is the cat. He flirted with neurosis dodging only two boys. Now he faces a trio of hazards even as his reflexes decline. If anyone qualifies to blame their troubles on a situational syndrome it’s him.

in the cat's bed

There is no place in this house for you to find solitude, Mr. Cat. It’s kind of like being a parent.